What’s in a name?
The housing strategy for England has finally arrived, but what does it mean for the sector?
It’s always worth having a think about the titles chosen for government policies.
David Cameron’s ‘Get Britain Building’ sounds strangely familiar after Gordon Browns ‘Building Britain’s Future’. The search for a catchy name for the new ‘locally planned large scale development fund’ could become a national competition in itself. A few years ago in Scotland the aspiration was to have ‘Firm Foundations’ for housing, and in England we are ‘Laying the Foundations’.
So the big question is, will the English initiatives add up to a strategy, and will the foundations be sound?
Just now, studying the plans on the day of publication to work out what the housing system built by the strategy will look like, I think we could end up with a wobbly structure.
The clearest statement yet of social housing as welfare could move us towards the very residualised, short term, bleak provision we see across the Atlantic.
Housing benefit reforms announced last year will form the foundation of future help with housing costs – reducing options for low income households and hindering good practice in housing management.
Launching initiatives to help a few buyers and refusing to look at the price and quality of existing private rent does not address the challenges most people face right now, nor does it look set to fix their fundamental causes in the future.
In a break from my usual tradition of optimism in the face of everything, I’m not at all confident that we’re moving towards a housing system that, to borrow the words of Cameron and Clegg, ‘works for everyone’.
Abigail Davies is Assistant Director of Policy and Practice at the CIH
The housing strategy includes the final draft settlement figures for HRA self financing. Authorities can develop their business plans for the new system with more certainty now that they have more or less the final amounts.
At the national level, the figures are generally as expected, with a total of settlement of £29.6bn, up from £28.4bn in February, largely as a result of increased rents driven by higher inflation offset by reductions in the number of properties.
Within this national total, however, there are some quite large movements for individual authorities , with reductions in settlement in some authorities and huge increases in others. Despite the ups and downs, local authorities will now be able to plan their spending on investment and services much more effectively and in meaningful partnership with tenants – it’s been a long time coming and we are in the final phase of implementation.
Conversely, the announcements around reinvigorating the right to buy are likely to cause some risks in business planning going forward, both for local authorities and potentially for transfer housing associations.
Although the government is planning to consult in more detail on its proposals next month, there are some key headlines in the strategy: the move to increase discounts up to 50 per cent with the aim to achieve 100,000 additional sales over time (which is not specified), the proposal to achieve a one for one replacement of sold homes with new affordable rent homes, most likely via the HCA programme.
There is a lot still to work through, including making a realistic assessment of the impact on landlords of increased sales and the way in which the government will allocate the money it wants to raise around the country.
Steve Partridge is Director of Financial Policy and Development at the CIH
The housing strategy is silent on a number of key issues that are having a serious impact on the life chances and quality of life of vulnerable people.
The government’s housing strategy recognises the demographic imperative of ensuring that the current and future housing needs of older people are recognised and addressed. The announcement of a new deal for older people’s housing provides a platform on which to build but the strategy is very short on detail. It fails to fully recognise the current and future pressures on the independence, health and well- being of older people if we do not urgently develop a coherent and detailed approach to housing an ageing population.
The strategy action plan and policy impact – evidence statements reflect current activities and fail to provide the necessary impetus required to prompt and promote innovation. CIH is calling for a more detailed timetable for action that recognises the policy links, across housing, social care and health, to enable and support local actions to address this critical national issue.
The housing strategy recognises the benefits of current housing support for older people, including handyperson schemes and home improvement agencies, but fails to recognise that these services are under serious threat in some areas and have been lost in others.
CIH believes that the government need to commit to laying the foundations for the new deal for older people’s housing that works collaboratively to identify how we will secure a universal approach to providing safe, accessible and warm homes for our ageing population. The housing strategy does not provide this.
The housing strategy confirms the government’s view that local spending reductions should not have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable people. The reality is that in many localities local authorities have reduced their supporting people budget significantly this year and there are indications that these budgets and services will continue to be lost over the next two to three years.
There is universal recognition across the sector and government that good housing support represents value for money and supports and contributes to the preventative agenda. Investing in housing support has clear financial benefits with cost savings being made to a number of different agencies as well as the exchequer.
The withdrawal of funding from housing related support services will have proportionately negative consequences. This will result in an increased financial burden for housing, health, social care and criminal justice services agencies.
The housing strategy does not recognise the need for local authorities to continue to invest in housing related support services and refers only to pilots that will trial different approaches to the funding that remains. It fails to acknowledge or address the reality and impact of withdrawn funding and lost services.
The most serious casualties of the loss of housing related support services are vulnerable people themselves
Domini Gunn is Director of Public Health and Vulnerable Communities at the CIH
The housing strategy provides a much needed overview of the numerous policy changes, initiatives and programmes the government has already or plans to embark on.
Importantly it provides for the housing sector a welcome reassurance of the continuing role for government in housing at a strategic national level. It raises the profile of housing and this has not always been the case for the coalition government who from the outset did not position housing as significant contributor to the delivery of wider objectives such as economic growth and well-being in the way in which it clearly must be.
Having gained this current raised profile for housing the government has a crucial role in reinforcing the strong messages in the strategy, above the noise of the media and political clamour, that all tenures need to offer a choice that is deliverable and meets the quality and volume of demand that are part of the ‘hopes and plans of young people, families and older households across the country’.
Listening to the coverage so far it would be an easy mistake to think that focusing solely on the hopes and plans needs of aspiring first time home owners is going to move us towards delivering the vision set out in the strategy:
‘A thriving, active but stable housing market that offers choice, flexibility and affordable housing critical to economic and social well being.’
The housing sector accepts that the way in which this vision and the high level objectives are delivered is set to be different in line with a commitment right across government to a move from national prescription to local driven approaches and plans. However the continuing strategic role for government must not be lost.
The housing strategy highlights the importance of government working together across its departments to achieve strategic objectives and avoid unintended consequences that must happen within government. Implementing welfare reform, particularly the desire to reduce the overall benefit bill, whilst tackling worklessness is a good example of this.
The detail behind how this balance can be achieved and overall impact measured of different government policies is, for the time being, missing from the government’s strategy for housing.
At a practical level what the housing strategy means for the sector will be determined by their ability to respond to a significant number of changes including scheme launches, new prospectus and consultations issued, reviews, pilots and demo projects as well as new powers and rights for communities.
Influencing the final detail of the initiatives and programmes within the housing strategy, understanding the impact for them and outcomes for people and communities, negotiating and working with partners as well as delivering the day job will be a tremendous challenges with a huge effort required. Taking elected members, boards and lenders with them as they work with local communities will require new ways of working and resources.
While local authorities have a responsibility to rise to this new settlement and provide leadership working with housing associations and others to deliver the government shouldn’t underestimate the importance of its role in using its collective strength in influencing the operating environment in which the housing sector has to deliver in.
The government is already using new tools to make the external environment more favourable in terms of incentivising lending to first time buyers and challenging the sector to bring forward ideas to remove ‘red tape’. This must continue but importantly must see the government using effective tools such as the guarantee arrangement for new build mortgages on a broad range of housing issues – for example the private rented sector and options for older people living in poor quality accommodation.
Delivering the vision for choice across tenures within the housing market will require a rounded approach and not the extreme focus we are seeing in the first responses to the housing strategy on homeownership and new build. This has the potential, if not corrected, to give the wrong messages to the housing sector, the wrong priorities and activities, delivering the wrong outcomes.
The housing strategy means new challenges and opportunities for the sector, it gives clarity in a fast moving policy, economic and political environment. It does not at this stage mean that all the answers are there in terms of delivering the outcomes we would all sign up to growing local economies, creation of jobs and spreading of opportunity.
Whilst the housing sector is working hard to help fill in this detail the government should commit to continuing to raise the profile of housing, deliver its role in facilitating the right conditions for delivery and assess progress and changes needed in an annual review of the housing strategy.
Karen Doran is Director of Housing Services at the CIH